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March 13, 2011

My Trouble With Tina
by Liz McKeon - 0

By WICF Contributor Meghan O'Keefe

Little, Brown & Co.
I’m beginning to get very worried about reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

The more and more I hear about Tina Fey’s personal opinions about feminism and comedy writing, the more I get weird knots in my stomach. As I get older, I’m finding myself disagreeing more and more with her and as someone who’s primary comedic (and life) influence is Tina Fey, that’s slightly worrying.

Let me back up. I should start by saying that Tina Fey literally changed my life. Before Tina Fey was on Weekend Update, I had a very specific understanding of what a nerdy, quiet brunette who wore glasses and wrote for her high school newspaper could accomplish in life. I was a good girl. I was a smart girl. I was probably going to be a journalist, teacher or book editor. It would be a good life, but one that was based upon honoring rules to a fault. Because I’m a good girl, breaking rules scares me. Order provides security and security provides happiness. When Tina Fey shot to national recognition as the first female head writer of “Saturday Night Live” and co-anchor of Weekend Update, it was as though a huge door had opened for me in my life. A smart girl who loved playing by the rules could bend those rules if she was smart, hard-working and funny. I had had a breakthrough moment like that before. When I was young, I saw Jennifer Saunders ride an airport luggage conveyor belt in an episode of “Absolutely Fabulous.” Something clicked back then in my head: You could break the rules if you were doing it for a laugh. I was a geeky girl in Delaware, though. I couldn’t look at the foreign and fabulous Saunders and see myself in her. But when I read an article about Tina Fey and discovered that she grew up less than a thirty-minute drive away from me and was editor of her high school newspaper as well, I finally felt a kinship with a female comedian. It wasn’t crazy for me to want to be funny; it was natural. I started writing comedy and performing improv. By expressing myself through those art forms, I finally found an inner confidence I’d always lacked and forged friendships with true kindred spirits. Every happiness I have now in life I owe in some respect to comedy, and I owe comedy to Tina Fey.

Meghan, once she became
comfortable as a comedian.
The danger with having one person inspire you to pursue a craft is that you tend to think they are the end-all be-all when it comes to how to approach that art form. In high school, I tried to write poetry like Emily Dickinson and short stories like Katherine Mansfield. I still find myself approaching satire with a Fey-like bite. Somehow, I was lucky enough to know early on I could never be exactly like Tina Fey. She had stated several times that she felt safer and more confident in glasses; I feel more self-assured wearing contacts. That sounds like a really dumb and superficial difference, but it created a crack between how I saw myself and how I saw myself relating to Fey. I knew I would never, ever be exactly like her. I still look at my sketch writing and notice it might be hindered by trying to evoke Fey’s sharpness too much. My sense of humor is deeply rooted in the same mesh of silly and smart that she brings every week to “30 Rock.” However, my voice as a stand up and my opinions as a woman seem very different from Fey.

Maybe the reason I’m worried about what her opinions on feminism and comedy writing are is because she is undoubtedly one of the few women whose opinions on those subjects are widely respected. Fey currently stands as the most successful and, at least, most visible, female comedy writer in America. Her opinion does matter, and because there isn’t another woman who’s obtained her level of notoriety to enter the argument, that opinion becomes fact. Everyone defers to her because, frankly, there’s no one else to defer to. So when, as a young woman and aspiring comedy writer, I find myself disagreeing with a lot of her opinions on womanhood and comedy writing, it puts me on uncomfortable ground. If someone who’s older and wiser has certain opinions on subjects based on life experience, then I, as a neophyte, should certainly defer to them. Right?

Meghan O'Keefe!
Wrong. If Tina Fey has taught me anything, it’s that it’s important to have faith that your point of view as a female comedy writer is important because it’s different from a man’s. Going further, it’s even more important if my point of view as a female comedy writer is different from other female comedy writers, because that means that the diversity of female voices in comedy is equal to the diversity of male voices in comedy. You can’t tell me that Larry David and Adam McKay and Louis CK and Dave Chappelle all approach humor with the same perspective. If they did, comedy would be incredibly boring. The best comedians respect other as writers and performers. They try to learn from each other, but they stay true to what makes them unique. Likewise, female writers should strive to learn from Fey’s example, but also work to step out of her shadow. The biggest thing I’ve learned from Fey’s career is that you need to approach your comedy writing with discipline and intelligence. Unlike Fey, I think sharks and robots are really funny and slut-shaming is kind of in poor taste.

Tina Fey will never stop influencing my work. Even last week, three of the four articles I had published online* referenced Fey in some capacity. As role models go, she’s pretty amazing. So far, she has managed to balance life as a wife and mother while pioneering a new role for women in comedy. I’m really lucky to have someone like her to look up to, but that looking up to someone doesn’t mean that we always have to see eye-to-eye.

Oh, and I’m still probably going to read Bossypants and obsess over it.

*I wrote a review of "30 Rock," an essay about Mean Girls (and Clueless), and Fey came up in an interview I did with Jessi Klein.

Reblogged with permission from Meghan's Tumblr, "Meghan is Okay. Just Okay. It's Cool." Meghan O'Keefe is a comedian in NYC.

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